African American art by some old (and new) favorites
  • The works of noted African American artists
  • Swann’s African American art auction
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    Auction Finds

    Photos of African American portraits, sculptures

    I was standing a short distance away from where the auctioneer was selling tables of books. I had already shuffled through them and hadn’t seen any that I just had to have.

    But when I heard him say the words “African American artists,” my head shot up, my eyes instinctively turned in his direction and my feet started walking. I excused my way through the crowd to stand just behind the auctioneer’s right shoulder as he started the bidding.

    I took a look at the artwork in his hands and quietly asked to look at the pieces. They were vintage pages of what appeared to be black and white photo reproductions of oil paintings by artist Laura Wheeling Waring and Betsy Graves Rayneau whose name I did not recognize (I later found her last named spelled as Reyneau). There were also photos of the sculptures of Richmond Barthe.

    They were on slick paper, now turning a little brown, but were in remarkably good condition.

    I had missed them on my rounds of the tables because they were stuffed in a box of papers. I had flipped through the papers but had not taken them out of the box. A no-no. I usually examine every piece of paper at auction.

    Another bidder had apparently already discovered them, and he pounced on the bid. I decided to get in on it, too, figuring that I could check out the sheets once I owned them. But the other bidder wanted them as badly as me and wasn’t going to back down. We both pushed the bidding up to $100. I looked at them again and decided that these were reproductions of photos, not prints, and maybe not worth more than that. I stepped out of the bidding.

    Afterward, the buyer was kind enough to let me look at them a little more closely. He told me that he was a buyer of African American art and that he’d sell them. Had I won the bid, I was going to keep them.

    There were two packets of pictures, both containing the same sets of Wheeler and Rayneau paintings, and the Barthe sculptures. They were issued by the Harmon Foundation, which was a patron of African American artists, writers, educators and scientists from 1922 to 1967. I could find no date on either of them.

    One packet had the inscription “Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origins. Painted by Two Women Artists. Laura Wheeler Waring. Betsy Graves Rayneau.” The other, “Sculpture by Richmond Barthe.”

    The female artists’ packet contained drawings of Mary McLeod Bethune, Marian Anderson, Asa Philip Randolph, George Washington Carver and W.E.B. DuBose, among others. The Barthe included some of his famous sculptures, including “The Negro Looks Ahead” (photo above).

    I found out by Googling that the Harmon Foundation mounted an exhibition of the portraits in 1944, starting at the Smithsonian Institution and traveling throughout the country. The foundation commissioned Rayneau, a white artist, and then Waring to paint the portraits – starting out at 23, with others painted and added during the 10-year-tour.

    The foundation’s aim was to fight racial intolerance and bigotry by touting the artistic accomplishments of African Americans.

    Forty-one of the final 50 portraits from the exhibit were donated to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington in 1967. They were exhibited in a 1997 exhibition called “Breaking Racial Barriers: African Americans in the Harmon Foundation Collection,” along with original testimonials about each subject. You can view the actual portraits here.

    Waring was primarily a portrait painter and was among the artists in the Harmon’s first exhibit in1927. She was also an art educator, a teacher at what is now Cheyney University outside Philadelphia. Rayneau was also a portrait painter who got involved in the project after returning from Europe in the 1930s and finding such overt racism in the country. She completed most of the portraits after Waring died in 1948.

    The Barthe photographs may be from 1942, but it’s not clear if they were part of an exhibition. Barthe was a renowned and successful sculptor, with works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of Art. He was perhaps the best well-known and honored of the Harmon Foundation’s artists.

    The gallery below contains some of the photos from the packets. Please click on the first photo to start the gallery.

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